History Writ in Frosting

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We have the Greeks to thanks for almost every aspect of our lives to some degree.  Democracy, the Olympics, the alphabet, architecture, mathematics, poetry, and philosophy are all products of the classical period of Greece.

Add birthday cake to that list.

It is popularly believed among scholars that the tradition of lighting candles on a cake began with the Greeks. To please Artemis, the goddess of the moon and childbirth, the ancient Greeks would bring a moon-shaped honey cake to the temple decorated with lit candles so that the moon glowed.

Chocolate, however, traces its origins to the ancient Aztec culture in Mexico, who first harvested the bean from the cacao tree.

So it is thousands of years and the marriage of two cultures which brings me my delicious birthday cake each year.

Cakes have come and gone.  I don’t remember each one of my cakes individually. But there are a few standouts: the photograph of my second birthday cake that my mom made in the shape of a bunny with coconut shavings as the fur, the Holly Hobby cake and the huge round cake decorated like a pizza.

Still, most of my birthday cakes are now just a collective memory of bakery boxes carefully carried into restaurants, round chocolate cakes, ablaze, set in front of me at the kitchen table.  Homemade cakes, store bought, and Baskin Robbins ice cream cakes.  Always the same cursive icing writing in blue or pink or red, “Happy Birthday Jill.”

Many birthdays we have gathered around my parents’ kitchen counter. While mom lights the candles on the cake we all lean into the family photo that dad is shooting.

There is something about the simultaneous glow of the candles, voices of family and friends singing the familiar notes, the sugary smell of the frosting, and the opportunity to make a wish.

As a kid I enjoyed counting the candles or staring with pride at the carved wax number with a wick.  Either way, my new age anchored in the moist cake, representing what was sure to be the best year yet.  I ignored the bothersome elastic chin strap of my cardboard cone party hat at least long enough to hear the song and make a wish.

At 40, I still take delight in my birthday cake and the ritual of blowing out the candles each year.

I draw in a big breath.  Then with pursed lips and puffer fish cheeks, the gust of air leaves my chest and makes its way across the sea of chocolate frosting to each of the tiny dancing flames.  My breath, heavy with the hope of a wish, extinguishes the candles. Instantly, the waxy-smelling swirls of smoke rise to the heavens in affirmation.

Of course I cannot share my wish with you, but I can say this:  The true test of whether a wish is real is that we not only have a picture in our heads, but also a pang in our hearts while we make the wish.

Perhaps it will be many moons before my birthday wish comes true.  But as the great Greek epic poet Homer reminds us in The Iliad “The fates have given mankind a patient soul.”

And while I am trying to be patient, Lucy, from the epic Peanuts reminds us, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”



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